Hudec ‘humbled’ by tour of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Calgary’s Jan Hudec made his Olympic debut in Vancouver  in 2010, but this week he came here for a completely different experience.

And it left  him feeling humbled and grateful for the opportunities he has as a full-time athlete.

Hudec, 30, toured the Downtown Eastside Wednesday night through a program run by Odd Squad Production Society, a non-profit organization established by retired and current Vancouver police officers to educate and empower youth (I spoke with Odd Squad and wrote about this project in Wednesday’s The Province).

Hudec along with national team speedskaters Jamie Gregg, Christine Nesbitt, Cindy Klassen and Brittany Schussler spent several hours talking to homeless people and those suffering from addictions. They shared their life stories and talked about how they ended up where they are today.

“We talked about where they came from, what things were like growing up,” Hudec said in a release from Alpine Canada. “We asked some pretty direct questions, like whether they even wanted to get clean. It was interesting.

“One of the answers I came away with was that sometimes people get into situations that they don’t think they can get out of any more.”

Hudec also has a story to tell. With his parents he fled the Czech Republic when he was a child. The family settled in a  refugee camp in Germany before eventually coming to Canada.

Last season Hudec led the Canadian team on the World Cup circuit.

“It was interesting to see how open they were,” Hudec said of the people he met. “They were just happy to have someone to talk to. Mark (a program staffer) put it perfectly when he said the people we met are people just like you and me who made a couple of life-changing decisions and found themselves almost lost or unable to come back.

“Some of them grew up in fairly healthy homes and got in with the wrong crowd and ended up in this spiral. Addictions don’t discriminate.”

Chris Graham, a retired police officer and Odd Squad program co-ordinator, took the athletes through an introductory classroom session before the neighbourhood visit.

“It was a bit of an eye-opener for the athletes,” he said. “Jan was really involved and interested in what was happening,” Graham said. “This neighbourhood is not very accessible, except when you tell them you are Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins, or an (Olympian), and suddenly they open up.

“A guy like Jan is exposed to a lot of people who have a lot of money or are affluent and he realizes how easy it would be to fall into this life of despair. There are a lot of people down here who had big careers, even athletes who got injured and maybe got addicted to (painkillers).

“We’d like to work together with the athletes to create some corporate sponsorship and develop programs where they go into schools. Most of these athletes already do that and the message is similar – it’s about making good choices and being involved in athletics or healthy lifestyles.”

Hudec, said that as a father – he has one son – the importance of making good choices really hit home.

“It’s important not to turn a blind eye to society and the reality of what’s going on so close to home,” he said. “Sometimes you can live such a sheltered life. Obviously, having a son I think about it more and more.”

Hudec planned to attend Odd Squad’s fundraising dinner at the Vancouver Convention Centre Thursday night. He said this Vancouver visit has made a lasting impression.

“To see people on a bad trip or whatever, having a hard time coping with being on the streets, it was definitely humbling,” Hudec said in the release.

“At first they didn’t know who we were but some of the (staff) told them we are Olympic athletes. They wished us good luck at the Olympics.  It was amazing.

“This one woman we met, she was a super nice lady. It’s amazing how much people will talk to you if you look approachable.

“This is going to stay with me forever.”